The Saga of the American Chestnut Tree
By Will D. Carpenter, Ph.D.
When the first settlers came to North America from Europe, they looked upon some of the most beautiful forests ever to be seen by man: oak, hickory, pine, chestnuts, and many others. Chestnuts? Who saw chestnuts?
The American Chestnut was the dominant tree in the Eastern American forests, from Canada to Georgia, to the plains of the West. The mature trees were as impressive as the Giant Sequoias of California. They were huge and outnumbered both oak and hickory. They were the primary source of food for the forest dweller, who in turn was food for the forest predators. The wood was unmatched for construction of homes, barns, railroad ties, fences, etc. For years, railroad cars filled with chestnuts would roll into eastern cities during the Christmas season.
Unfortunately, just as in an old-time movie, a villain appeared which virtually eliminated the magnificent trees. The villain was a fungus which was imported from China on some Chinese Chestnuts around 1900, and the American Chestnut had no resistance to the disease. By 1920, only a few scattered pockets of trees were left from the billions that were present when the settlers first arrived.
Small groups of dedicated scientists, farmers, and others have spent decades trying to find ways to bring back this glorious tree, to no avail. However, recently, just as heroes in the movies saved the day, modern science has been able to bring back the American Chestnut tree. Conventional methods failed, but, a gene from wheat was found to provide a way to destroy the poison of the fungus that killed the tree.
There are now chestnut trees which are resistant to the fungus, and, under the guidance of the EPA, USDA, and FDA, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be able to see the huge, beautiful trees in our forests, farms, and cities, which have been missing for far too long. The dedicated scientists who have devoted their lives to bringing back these wonders will never see them reach their full glory, but the hard work and diligence of these experts will ensure that the American Chestnut is once again thriving in all its grandeur.
*The Illustration is licensed under CC-By 4.0 linked to Wikipedia Commons